Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the finest critics writing today and the most broadly erudite, as comfortable and astute assessing blockbuster movies as he is when writing about classical Greek and Roman literature. He’s also an elegant and moving memoirist, of his personal history in “The Elusive Embrace” and of his family’s entanglement with the Holocaust in “The Lost.”
His lovely new book, “An Odyssey,” draws on all Mendelsohn’s talents as he braids critical exegeses into intimate reminiscences to illuminate them both. His 2011 seminar at Bard College on the “Odyssey” becomes a voyage of discovery not just for his students but also for Mendelsohn, who gets more than he bargained for when his 81-year-old father, Jay, decides to sit in on the class.
One of the pleasures of reading Mendelsohn in any genre is being in expert hands, guided by a writer who knows precisely what he is doing. Not that his work is schematic; on the contrary, he is alert to ambiguities and aware that the path to any truth is a winding one. Mendelsohn’s defining skill is his ability to trace those winding paths in rich detail and intricate layers of revelations that build to a deeper understanding — of art, of life — that is humanly and artistically satisfying. So, in “An Odyssey” he borrows from the conventions of classical literature to name the chapters of his book and to pinpoint the evolution it chronicles, from “Telemachy (Education)” to “Nostos (Homecoming)” and “Anagnorisis (Recognition).”
He begins with “Proem (Invocation)”: “The introductory lines that announce to the audience what the epic is about,” Mendelsohn explains. “The scope of its action, the identities of its characters, the nature of its themes.” From his proem, we learn that the action includes father and son taking a post-seminar Mediterranean cruise, “Retracing the Odyssey,” just a few months before Jay took a fall that led to a massive stroke. As for its characters, we learn that Jay, a retired research scientist, intimidated his son for years with his contempt for everything “soft,” his insistence that truth was hard and exact. Mendelsohn, who “felt that everything about me was hopelessly mushy and imprecise,” won Jay’s grudging respect by mastering the rigorous grammars of Latin and ancient Greek, but the basic divide in their points of view remained. Mendelsohn closes his invocation by returning to the “Odyssey” to enumerate its themes; we can already see that the story he is about to tell shares those themes, but their dense, complicated interplay in fiction and fact will take the entire book to unpack.
It doesn’t begin well. “This is going to be a nightmare,” Mendelsohn thinks halfway through the first session of Classics 125. His father, who had promised he wasn’t going to talk in class at all, is instead going on and on about how Odysseus doesn’t seem like much of a hero to him, disrupting Mendelsohn’s careful orchestration of the students’ discussion about Book 1. Despite Jay’s proclamation that he joined the class because “You’re never too old to learn,” Mendelsohn is convinced nearly to the end of the semester that his father is incapable of accepting a risk-taking adventurer and unrepentant liar as a hero. The vivid classroom scenes at first show Jay trumpeting his black-and-white notions of good behavior, while interspersed stories about his youth reinforce the impression of a man who has deliberately limited his horizons.
That’s true, but not the whole truth, which Mendelsohn unfolds by making brilliant use of the classical Greek technique of ring composition. Within a chronological account of the 16-week seminar, he enfolds not just flashbacks of family history but also flash-forwards to the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise and subsequent visits to his father’s two closest friends. This unconventional organization (more lucid on the page than in description) perfectly captures the stop-and-start rhythms of Mendelsohn’s progress toward better understanding. It underscores the circular nature of learning by allowing him to pluck from chronology several crucial moments whose significance he only grasped later and to make them integral parts of his poignant, tender conclusion: “You never do know, really, where education will lead; who will be listening and, in certain cases, who will be doing the teaching.”
“An Odyssey” is very much a book about the power and purpose of education. Some of its most affecting pages pay warm tribute to the high school teachers who mentored Mendelsohn when he was a lonely gay teenager, and to the classics professors who invited him to join “this vast lineage of scholarship” that stretches “in a more or less unbroken line all the way back to ancient times.” Making that kind of connection with his own father was harder, but Jay’s decision to take Mendelsohn’s class sets in motion a journey that brings them to fuller knowledge of each other and themselves. Jay’s late-semester acknowledgment that there might possibly be some reason to honor Odysseus turns out to be a recognition that applies to him and his son, as well: “In his life he’s learned something.”
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
By Daniel Mendelsohn
Knopf. 306 pp. $26.95